I know that’s an ambitious title. This post is just an attempt to scratch the surface a little. I’ve been in many conversations about e-books, including conference panels, and I’ve often focused on e-books as a distribution channel and as a narrowly defined product, something you could read on a 1st generation e-reader.
When people talked about more enhanced and innovative digital reading experiences, I tended to classify those as something else. Storybook apps. Interactive narrative thingamajigs. Not e-books.
My thinking has changed. Distribution channels and basic epubs are still part of the conversation, but I’m more focused now on the question of what an e-book should be.
To answer this question, I have to go into the past beyond Digital Book World, Dynabook, and the Hypertext Editing System. All the way back to the 1920s to a man named Bob Brown.
You probably know Bob Brown best as the author of Let There Be Beer! or The Complete Book of Cheese. But he also spent a lot of time thinking and writing about a machine that would transform reading and writing.
He had seen how the Talkies transformed movies, and he wanted the same thing to happen to books.
Bob Brown wanted a simple reading machine he could carry around, attach to an electric plug, and read huge novels.
He said this machine would allow you to move back and forth in the book, adjust the font size, avoid paper cuts, and save trees, all while hastening the day “when words could be recorded directly on the palpitating ether.”
So, we’ve got some of those machines, sort of. And our palpitating ether is called the Cloud. But with the exception of work done by a few pioneers, that’s mostly where we’ve stopped. And it’s not where Bob Brown wanted to stop.
The way Talkies transformed the art of movie making, what Bob Brown called Readies were supposed to transform the art of making books. He was looking for a “bloody revolution of the word.”
Here’s a Bob Brown quote I like, though I don’t agree with the sentiment:
In the reading-machine future
Say by 1950
All magnum opuses
Will be etched on the
Heads of pins
Not retched into
Three volume classics
By pin heads
Personally I’m a fan of three-volume classics and a devoted devourer of print books in general. But this gives an idea of the sort of revolution Bob Brown had in mind. “Writing has been bottled up in books since the start,” he said. “It is time to pull out the stopper.“
Where do we find ourselves now in the industry? I’ve seen all kinds of hyperbolic language in the e-book headlines. We’re in the middle of a revolution. We’re on a precipice. But if we want to fully capture the gravity and promise of the moment, there’s only one way to explain it.
And that’s using World of Warcraft.
Those of us working for or partnering with publishers who are trying to enter the e-book and storybook app space, we’re like a guild on the threshold of an exciting and dangerous quest. The odds are stacked against us. The numbers don’t come out right no matter how many times we crunch them. But there’s no turning back.
Many among us are tentative, trying to err on the side of caution, endlessly going over strategy, trying to get a handle on the probability of success.
But there are those brave few who rush ahead to pave the way for the rest of us. Now, granted, sometimes that does result in everyone getting killed by dragons. But there are times when it results in an amazing leap forward that inspires the rest of us to follow.
In order to figure out this space, we need a little of everyone. We need visionary madmen like Bob Brown. We need the strategists and probability crunchers. And we need some Leeroys. Metaphors aside, it’s really about using data to propel innovation rather than to constrict it.
More recently, Bill Thompson at the BBC Archives urged publishers to think beyond the e-book, saying that e-books swim…in an entirely different ocean…as active parts of a digital ecosystem. He criticized the way the e-book future is developing, calling the standard e-readers killing jars for words.
Narrowing the possibilities gives publishers some comfort and some control over the ecosystem, but in the long term it’s a doomed strategy to keep the possibilities harnessed to existing business models and distribution channels.
To quote Neil Gaiman at the Digital Minds Conference: “The model for tomorrow is to try everything. Make mistakes. Surprise ourselves. Try anything else. Fail. Fail better. And succeed in ways we never would have imagined a year or a week ago.”